It’s no surprise that MLB.com and Sports on Earth reporter Paul Casella ranked the AL East at the top of a list of baseball’s most competitive divisions. What is worth noting was the runner up: the NL Central.
The NL Central is a special division. Two mountain ranges separate the five teams in this division from the flashiness of New York and Philadelphia, and the bright lights of Hollywood and San Francisco (put your geographical skills to good use and see if you can figure out which ones.)
2015 has given us the most competitive NL Central season in recent memory with three solid teams all heading into October looking for the pennant, or sitting in the one-two spots for the NL Wild Card. There’s:
- The reigning champion and the best team in baseball; also known by the stereotypical AL East fan as “that really good team from the city with the arch”, the Cardinals
- The unconventional underdog; also known by the baseball fan who never learned East Coast geography as “that team from Pittsburgh, which is right next to Philly, right?”, the Pirates
- The surprise, the shocker; also known by desperate Chicagoans who are just tired of waiting as the “Lovable Losers”, who last won the NL pennant in the same year in which World War II ended, the Cubs
Yes, you read that right. The Cubs may be 6.5 games out of first place in the division, but they are sitting in the second spot in the Wild Card and are looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The Pirates hold the first place Wild Card spot, and are back in the race for first in the division with help of a hot Andrew McCutchen.
With just about three weeks until the postseason begins, there is still a lot of baseball to be played, so I’ll break down each of the top three team’s remaining schedules and look at what they need to do to make their mark again, or for the first time, come October.
Record (as of 9/14): 89-54
Remaining Schedule: 9/15-9/17 @ Brewers, 9/18-9/20 @ Cubs, 9/21-9/23 vs. Reds, 9/24-9/27 vs. Brewers, 9/28-9/30 @ Pirates; 10/2-10/4 @ Braves
How They’ll Win: A month ago, the Cardinals would have looked at their last stretch of games and smiled. The Brewers and Reds, 27.0 and 28.5 games out of first place, respectively, seemed like easy targets and easy wins. And then came the 4-8 September. The Cardinals have won only three out of eleven games since September 2, with perhaps the worst defeats coming in three straight, low-scoring (including a brutal 11-0 beating) losses to Cincinnati. St. Louis gets a bit of a break with the series against Milwaukee, but it will all come down to the final series at Pittsburgh. The Cards look like they’ll be getting 1B Matt Adams back, and his .252 average and 37 hits pre-injury will add another bat to a lineup that had four losses by six runs or more in just one week. One factor that will help is the Cards’ road record. St. Louis has the fewest road losses in the MLB (30), so the twelve away games can play to their advantage. If the Cardinals can’t hold their place and end their September slump, the division is theirs to lose.
Record (as of 9/14): 86-56
Remaining Schedule: 9/15-9/17 vs. Cubs; 9/18-9/20 @ Dodgers; 9/21-9/24 @ Rockies; 9/25-9/27 @ Cubs; 9/28-9/30 vs. Cardinals; 10/2-10/4 vs. Reds
How They’ll Win: Out of the top three in this division, the Pirates, in my opinion, will have the most difficult September home stretch. Despite the fact that the Reds sit in fifth place in the standings, the Pirates have struggled against them this season, with only six wins in sixteen games against Cincinnati. The two matchups with Chicago will not be easy, either. In August, they split a two-game series, so the Pittsburgh offense must be able to handle the hot Cubs’ pitching staff. The series against St. Louis will be a deciding factor in the race for the division title, something the Pirates have never won (in the Central Division), and with the gap closed to just 2.5 games between the two teams, the Pirates want to avoid playing for the Wild Card for the third year in a row. Don’t sleep on Pittsburgh’s chances for the division title, especially if they can overtake Zack Greinke and the red-hot Dodgers (whom they swept in August).
Record (as of 9/14): 82-60
Remaining Schedule: 9/15-9/17 @ Pirates; 9/18-9/20 @ Cardinals; 9/21-9/23 vs. Brewers; 9/25-9/27 vs. Pirates; 9/28 vs. Royals; 9/29-10/1 @ Reds; 10/2-10/4 @ Brewers
How They’ll Win: I’m not sure anyone (other than optimistic hometown fans) would have predicted in April that the Cubs would still be an active contender in the race to the postseason. But thanks to the magic of Kris Bryant, Jake Arrieta and the rest of Chicago’s impressive lineup, we’re still talking about them in September. The Cubs have been 35-20 since the All-Star Break, and their target now is the Pirates, who still hold the four-game lead for the advantage in the Wild Card. Chicago is 7-5 against the Pirates this season, so if they can sort out their bullpen and get more strong performances from Arrieta and Lester, they can win those two series. What stands out to me is the away series next week in St. Louis. If the Cubs can pull out two wins against the Cards, like they did in high fashion last week on the road, the Wild Card is theirs for the taking. Be honest, baseball fans. What could be better to watch than the Cubs making the playoffs to break in the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field? Well, maybe a championship.
My pick – Out of the three teams, the Cubs have had the best September, and aren’t showing signs of slowing down. This week’s coming series with the Pirates will tell a lot. The Pirates had a rough start to the month with three straight losses to the Brewers, but if they can turn around and pull out at least four wins over the slumping Cardinals and the Dodgers, I like Pittsburgh to pull ahead and win the NL Central title, with the Cubs finishing with the top spot in the Wild Card.
It’s September 14, and there’s still a lot of Cracker Jacks to be thrown, seventh innings to be stretched and good baseball to be played. The ride to October begins now. Buckle up.